The last man sentenced to be hanged in the UK has won permission to appeal against his conviction for murdering a soldier in Northern Ireland, after evidence emerged of British army use of waterboarding torture during interrogations in the 1970s.
Prosecutors offered no objection to an appeal by Liam Holden, whose 1973 conviction for murdering a member of the Parachute Regiment was based on a confession he said was extracted under torture that included waterboarding.
Holden's legal team cited fresh evidence unearthed by Guardian reporter Ian Cobain about the use of waterboard torture techniques by the military at the time.
Speaking after Friday's hearing in Belfast, Holden's solicitor, Patricia Coyle, said Cobain's material, which will form part of a book, Cruel Britannia, covering the British military's use of torture from the second world war onwards, was significant in securing the appeal.
Coyle said: "We have taken a seismic step towards overturning Liam Holden's conviction. The crown lawyer said they would offer no objection to holding the appeal, which is listed for June."
The lawyer also released a statement on behalf of Holden, who served 16 years for a crime he said he never committed. It read: "My client welcomes the decision by the director of public prosecutions not to oppose the Criminal Cases Review Commission referral to the court of appeal on the basis that the verdict in his case from 1973 is unsafe. He has been protesting his innocence for almost 40 years. Despite this indication today by the director of public prosecution, my client may, however, wish to pursue the allegation of water torture/waterboarding. This allegation was first made by him in his trial in 1973."
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said that fresh evidence concerning the circumstances of Holden's detention by the army was central to the decision not to oppose the appeal.
A PPS spokesman said the decision was made on the basis that material in a confidential annex of evidence compiled by the Criminal Case Review Commission had not been available to prosecutors at the time of Holden's trial. Had it been passed to prosecutors they would in turn have been obliged under law to pass it to Holden's defence team, allowing them to challlenge "the admissibility of statements of admission made by Liam Holden to the military and to police".
The spokesman added: "The court of trial was therefore deprived of relevant material that might have led to a different outcome on the question of admissibility of the incriminating statements, which were the sole basis of the conviction. In those circumstances the director concluded that it would not be appropriate to oppose the appeal."
The jury refused to believe Holden's claim that he only confessed to the fatal shooting of Private Frank Bell in October 1972 in the republican Ballymurphy area of west Belfast under torture and duress. Bell had just turned 18 and had joined the Parachute Regiment six weeks earlier. He was the 100th British soldier to die in Northern Ireland that year.
Holden said that after he was arrested he was taken to the nearby Black Mountain army base where he was beaten, burned with a cigarette lighter, hooded and threatened with execution. In addition, Holden, who was then a 19-year-old chef, said a towel was placed over his head and water poured slowly over his face from a bucket.
"It nearly put me unconscious. It nearly drowned me and stopped me from breathing. This went for a minute," he recalled. A short time later, Holden said he was subjected to the same ordeal again ? an interrogation technique that later became, via Guant?namo Bay, notorious around the world as waterboarding.
Although Holden was found guilty of a capital murder the then Northern Ireland secretary, William Whitelaw, commuted his sentence to life. Since his release from jail in 1989 Holden has campaigned to clear his name.